In the first episode of his new show “Who Is America,” comedian Sacha Baron Cohen did a surreal bit in which he persuaded three U.S. Congressmen and former Senator Trent Lott to support his character’s desire to train children as young as four years old to carry guns to help stop school shootings. “Kinder Guardians,” he called them.
Well, how’s this for surreal? On July 10, five days before the episode aired, it became legal for anyone in most parts of this country — convicted murderers, known terror suspects and, yes, even children — to easily and legally make a gun in their own basement. And not just any gun, mind you. An untraceable gun.
This development is the result of the U.S. State Department’s decision to settle a lawsuit brought by Austin, Texas-based Defense Distributed, which sued the government in 2015 for the right to publish plans to 3D print a handgun, along with other designs including milling instructions to program a desktop 3D CNC machine to create guns and gun parts. Today was the day Defense Distributed had planned to relaunch the company’s online repository of files, which is calls DefCad.
Fortunately, a Federal judge in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order yesterday in a case brought by eight states, preventing the distribution of the CAD files, pending the trial. While it turns out Defense Distributed had already started distributing the files, the website relaunch was sure to attract the attention of people who our society has decided should not have access to guns. As the blurb on Defense Distributed’s website (now turned upside down, in protest of the restraining order) proclaimed: “The age of the downloadable gun formally begins.” Rarely has the phrase “dodging a bullet” rung so true.
Defense Distributed’s vision is a big deal. While there’s been a DIY gun movement for years, you needed some expertise in metal-working and a hobbyist’s passion for guns, manufacturing or both. Not anymore. Defense Distributed has made making a real gun at home as easy as buying a home-brew kit to make your first batch of beer. Say you want to build your own AR-15 without the government having any knowledge. There are just four simple steps. First, put down a $250 deposit to get one of Defense Distributed’s Ghost Runner metal milling machines (while the full price isn’t listed on the website, this excellent article in Wired says the machine costs $1,200.) Second, buy legally-available gun parts, such as the muzzle and the grip of an AR-15, as well as a slightly-unfinished “lower-receiver” from Defense Distributed or another gun supplies website. (The sale of finished “lowers” for all guns has been regulated until now, as the lower contains the trigger mechanism and therefore is the part that controls whether a gun is single-shot, semi-automatic or automatic). When the “80%” complete lower arrives in the mail, follow the instructions to set it properly in the Ghost Gunner. Fourth, download the file for the part you want to make from Defense Distributed’s website, and then drag and drop the file onto the icon for your Ghost Gunner on your PC. With the push of a button, the machine will complete the milling of the lower, so it can be combined with other AR-15 parts you’ve purchased legally.
Note that the news today is not just about plastic guns. Defense Distributed became well known back in 2013 when it unveiled designs for a handgun called the Liberator that could be printed with a 3D-printer. While a technical milestone of sorts, this and other plastic firearms are only capable of a limited number of shots before they self-destruct. The real threat is the ability to make your own high-quality, fully functional mil-spec semi-automatic weapon.
As an American citizen, I am concerned that the State Department’s decision nullifies the one thing that everyone from the NRA to Parkland student activist Emma Gonzalez could agree on: that people who are known to be dangerous to the public should not be able to get a gun capable of inflicting mass casualties. Suddenly, every Federal measure put in place to make life difficult for mass shooters—the disgruntled teenage boy tired of being bullied at school, the furious ex-husband with a jealous grudge, the radicalized religious zealot—is rendered ineffective. Unless there are state or local laws in place, would-be murderers will not need to submit to background checks, or take the chance that a sharp-eyed gun shop owner will notify authorities of suspicious behavior. They’ll also have an easier time skirting “Red Flag” laws, such as the one passed by Massachusetts on July 3, that gives family members and house-mates the right to request confiscation of guns from people they consider to be dangers to themselves or others.
No doubt, some state and local laws will provide legal checks on Defense Distributed’s “guns-on-tap” vision. On July 30, two days before it planned to relaunch distribution of its CAD files, the company agreed to block access to the site in Pennsylvania to avoid legal action by the state’s Attorney General. It’s also illegal to sell guns and gun parts made with a Ghost Gunner to others without a Federal Firearms License, and in some cases may be illegal to even let someone else use their Ghost Gunner, according to Defense Distributed’s website.
Regardless of what happens with the lawsuit filed by the eight states and the District of Columbia, some checks on Defense Distributed’s “guns-on-tap” vision will remain. The State Department’s decision to allow distribution of the CAD files did not lift Federal prohibitions on the use of DIY milling machines for commercial purposes, without a Federal Firearms License. The machines are supposed to be only for personal use. Defense Distributed warns would-be customers on its website that it may be illegal to even let someone else use your Ghost Gunner in some jurisdictions. Many states and municipalities also have laws regulating use of DIY gun technology–and that will no doubt rise now that the topic has become front-page news.
Contact your elected officials and ask them not to lower the bar.
Read more here about today’s threat vectors and tomorrow’s security threats.